Friday, April 6, 2012

"We'd Better Send Something Up": Search for Meaning; Laughs on the Way

By James E. Trainor III
Photo by Josh Beadle

3 Bros - Who would have thought two assassins could be the source of outrageous comedy? Harold Pinter, apparently, and his 1960 play The Dumb Waiter has become a staple of absurdist theatre. Three Brothers Theatre has brought the play to the Paul Engle Center for Neighborhood Arts in Cedar Rapids, with Josh Beadle directing and Ryan Westwood and Rick Adams playing the dangerous duo.

The Dumb Waiter uses the setup that is so successful in plays like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - two men alone on stage dealing with life's many uncertainties - but unlike those two more ponderous plays it condenses the quest for meaning into one ridiculous and restless act. The play involves Gus (Rick Adams), a young hit-man, Ben (Ryan Westwood), apparently his mentor, a basement room with a sparsely-equipped kitchen, and the receiving end of a dumb waiter. As Gus asks increasingly desperate questions about the uncertainties behind this job (and indeed their career), Ben delves further into his paper and tries alternately to distract Gus and to put him in his place. Soon, they are interrupted by orders for food coming from upstairs, giving their already uncertain situation an amusingly preposterous twist.

Rick Adams is extremely engaging as Gus. Gus seems to be the more thoughtful of the pair; the opening sequence, where he ties his shoes and attempts to get comfortable, is both a great piece of physical acting and a perfect introduction to the character. Adams' Gus seems simple-minded but betrays a deep sense of wonder about the world; he is delightedly fascinated by the pattern on a saucer or the prospect of seeing a soccer match. He is increasingly uneasy, however, about his situation, and Adams takes the audience along on this journey with his impeccable character work. His use of details like a facial tic or a prop grounds us in the physical reality of the character even as we leap out into the larger existential crisis surrounding the material. His comic timing is precise and his vocal work - at first contemplative and then desperate and strained - fits right into this darkly funny play.

Ryan Westwood's intensely grumpy Ben is a lot of fun. He is roused to great anger over trivial details such as the semantics of putting the kettle on (or is it the gas you put on?), but never quite gets outrageous enough to outpace the silliness of the plot itself. He is our barometer; he seems to know a bit more than Gus about the situation, and his nonverbals - especially the way he keeps his eye on Adams - give us a lot of insight as to the stakes. He knows his way in and out of a comic bit very well, and the jagged pace of this hilarious one-act would not work so well without his complete committal to his scene partner and to the various bits of nonsense that make up the dumb waiter sequence.

Josh Beadle's skill at directing is evident in the performance of the actors; the pacing is quite tight, and the show certainly earns its pauses. Pinter is often cited as the playwright who invented the dramatic pause, but The Dumb Waiter stands out as an exception, and its explosive pace is what makes both the comedy and the drama work so well. That said, Beadle is clearly aware of the stakes in the world of these two characters, and he makes some fairly strong directorial choices. Without giving away the final twist, it's safe to say that it becomes clear that Ben knows what's going on, and that puts some interesting moral questions on the tip of the tongue, even as the action barrels on to its conclusion. It's also quite clear when Gus clues in on the scheme, and his resignation to his destiny makes the existential questions of the play become concrete, emotional, and poignant.

The staging makes excellent use of the space available, putting audiences on two sides of a small, intimate area that has a sort of "white box" feel. The dumb waiter is a door in a wall directly upstage of the actors, and its introduction is one of the signature moments of the play. Right at the point where the characters' restlessness grows so palpable that it cannot be resolved between the two of them, the unknown strikes with a bang, causing them to draw their guns and take aim at... a piece of paper requesting tea service. The ramp-up and resolution here is comic gold, and it is executed perfectly by director and cast.

Pinter is an actor's writer, and the passion and excitement given off by actors engaged in such fun work is contagious. This is an ideal setting for such work - intimate, powerful, fast-paced, and hilarious. And it's in the tiny beats between the bizarre that the big questions of this play seep through. What is the meaning of work, whether you're a jaded hit-man on call or suddenly called to be a short-order cook? Is it possible to fulfill or even fathom the expectations of the people upstairs? Is it better to have interests or to simply be interested? Who will clean up after you, if anybody? Can you really trust that man you call your partner? These questions are huge, but, like life, Pinter only gives you a moment to ask them before the next unfathomable task sweeps you away. Three Brothers presents an excellent realization of this script. Like life, this performance is brutal, increasingly odd, and over too soon.

Go see it.

The Dumb Waiter plays through April 15 at the Paul Engle Center (1600 4th Ave SE in Cedar Rapids), 7:30 Fridays & Saturdays, 2:00 Sundays. Tickets are $10.

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